June 22, 2012

Here’s why I’m volunteering to go to Afghanistan

by Maj. Tyrell Mayfield
Naval Postgraduate Student

I am going to Afghanistan as an embedded advisor. I am an AFPAK (Afghanistan, Pakistan) Hand. I am a volunteer and that does not make me crazy.

I have volunteered for all manners of things in my life. I volunteered for the Army, to jump out of planes, for Ranger School. I volunteered to go to college, to join the Air Force, to earn a commission.

Over the course of the last 19 years I have also done a lot of things I was told to do. Out of spite sometimes, I did things that I was strongly advised against. “Don’t do that, you’ll ruin any career you might have in front of you,” I was told by a colonel one time. But I wanted to. I felt like I needed to. So, I volunteered to be a Combat Aviation Adviser with the 6th Special Operations Squadron and that’s when things changed.

I spent six months learning passable Arabic, then almost another year of training and education before I completed my “supervised deployment” and was a full-up round. The first trip was a real eye-opener for me. I had worked with foreign forces before and even had some integrated into units I had deployed with, but it was always on U.S. installations and on U.S. terms.

On my first deployment as an adviser I lived with my counterparts at a remote airfield. I stayed in their billets [quarters], ate their food, walked their ground, on their terms. I spoke Arabic as much as I could, though what they really wanted was to practice their English on me.

We spent weeks trying to improve their air base defense knowledge, refining procedures and improving the integration of their forces. I did my best to teach them everything I could. What ended up happening was something I didn’t really expect. I learned more in that month than I thought was possible.

My passable Arabic was not as impressive of an achievement as I had thought it was. I learned this sitting at dinner and trying to follow a conversation that flipped through Arabic, French, Berber, Spanish and English with as much effort as it took me to pour another glass of scalding hot tea.

I tried to ride some crazy Arabian horse and was unceremoniously and painfully tossed in the dirt to much laughter. I stubbed my ego badly but I earned some respect from my counterparts and in a way, some respect for my country too.

It wasn’t a perfect trip. It was maddening at times, frustrating always and achieving what you might call “progress” was almost impossible to demonstrate, but it was there. The contact is what mattered. The relationship, the honesty, and the opportunity to explain a few things about America while learning a lot about the country I was working in was the intangible reward.

My following missions as a combat aviation adviser were similar but many were conducted under more challenging conditions. In a lot of places I ended up, my Modern Standard Arabic was almost useless. It was like learning English in London and then being assigned someplace on the bayous of Louisiana. English is English – until it isn’t.

The war in Afghanistan carried on and I ended up in places where Arabic wasn’t very useful. A lot of the work done by advisers happens on the fringes of conflict. It’s like fighting a grass fire on the edge of a burning forest. If you pull it off you can stem the advancing fire. If not, you’re likely to get caught up in a rapidly growing conflagration. Advising is often about containing and combating a problem by, with, and through those countries you’ve partnered with.

On one trip we worked with a partner nation for the better part of a year. I was exposed to an entirely different way of thinking; my own ideas were challenged and small tasks proved hugely important.

Culture in many of these countries is deep and, though I did my best, I was barely able to tread water early on. Shortly after this deployment was over the country we left was devastated by a natural disaster. I watched on TV from the comfort of my living room as the very units we were embedded with the month before saved countless lives. They were making a difference and I ached because I wasn’t able to help. It was best that I wasn’t there.

When we went back a few months later to the same unit I reaped a dividend of immeasurable value. America did to, but nobody ever saw it or wrote about it. You had to be there to see it and even then you couldn’t have plotted it on a graph or built a chart out of the data. You could just feel it.

Their confidence was buoyed by success, their hard work had paid off and they were recognized anew for their professionalism and heroism by their government and the citizens they served. Could more have been done if we had been embedded at the time of the disaster? Maybe, but our presence would have detracted from their success. It was best they did it on their own. We hadn’t trained them in search and rescue, or humanitarian relief but they were able to take the skill sets we had worked on for so many months and adapt them to their new environment. They did it themselves and it made all the difference.

A number of conventional assignments followed. I was an operations officer, a wing staff guy, I commanded a squadron in garrison and deployed but none of it was as personally satisfying as the intangible reward I earned as an adviser and that’s why I am going back.

I was advised against volunteering for AFPAK Hands by virtually every senior officer and peer that I talked to about it. “You’ll be out of the career field too long,” “nobody will want you when you come back” or “it won’t help you get promoted” were the common refrains. It’s probably all true and I don’t care.

I’m now learning Dari and preparing for my deployment. My Arabic background has proven very helpful and I’ve managed to be a better student of language the second time around. I think part of it is that I know how important it’s going to be.

The memory of being immensely frustrated and at times scared by not being able to follow a conversation at a few very tense moments in the past has reinforced my desire to learn. It’s entirely possible that I’ll not speak much of it in my official capacity, but language provides insight into culture, into how people think and what is important in their lives. I could end up in a ministry, embedded at the operational level with the ANSF (Afghan National Security Force), or tasked to conduct village stability operations. Regardless of where I end up, nothing that I am going to do will likely change the outcome of this decade long conflict. But that doesn’t mean that what I do won’t matter.

The outcome of this war is for the most part, already decided. The Taliban – though still present – will not return to power and al Qaeda has been strategically crippled and denied the freedom of movement and sanctuary that Afghanistan once provided. What remains to be seen is what Afghanistan will look like in 10 years, or 20. Can a return to civil war be averted? Can Afghanistan expand the writ of the state far enough to provide an acceptable level of security for its citizens and defend its sovereignty should it be challenged? Can the gains of the last decade – modest as they may be – hold out in a society struggling after three decades of constant conflict? These are the questions I am thinking about. These are the next challenges Afghanistan will face.

Advisory work happens on the periphery. It’s often unnoticed, unknown and certainly under-appreciated. Its focus is on the future, on helping someone else win the next war so we don’t have to, or better yet, preventing it from happening all together. It is in this absence of a phenomenon that you can see the success of an adviser. When something doesn’t happen where the terrible was possible an adviser has likely made a difference. If 10 years from now Afghanistan is not front page news, I will have done my job as an AFPAK Hand and the Afghans will be doing theirs.


Editor’s note: this commentary was reprinted with permission from the author.

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